Coach K’s assistants reveal how the living legend prepares for a Duke game
From afar, coaching can seem like a pretty sweet gig. While there’s plenty to do behind the scenes, it’s not exactly digging trenches. You do a few drills, create a handful of plays, and on game day they pace the sidelines looking angry for two hours. To the right?
Just look at legendary Duke Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski. If anyone has the license to be lazy, it’s the 75-year-old. He has five NCAA titles to his name and will be retiring in a few days. Before the Final Four, however, expect Coach K to burn the midnight oil. But what actually happens behind the scenes as matchday approaches?
CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander tracked down some of Krzyzewski’s former and current assistants to get a fuller picture of that reality. Let’s just say it’s not for the faint of heart.
Coach K has found success based on marathon film sessions
When you hear the term film study, it’s easy to imagine the whole team getting together in a room, watching some notable moments from the previous game, and moving on. Coach K, however, goes much further.
As explained in the CBS story referenced above, Krzyzewski still watches movies using the same methods he learned at West Point. As soon as he finishes coaching a game, he immediately watches it; sometimes he even rolls the same ribbon three times. He will then continue to watch Duke’s upcoming enemies, trying to gather even the smallest nugget of future knowledge before declaring it over.
“The discipline of setting up every game the same way is, if I say it, I mean we’ve seen plays before, we’ve scouted them before,” explained Jon Scheyer, the man who will succeed Coach K target. “First game of the year, last game of the year, he’s preparing the same way. He has his method of writing notes and rewriting notes. After the game watching the film of our next opponent. We look at the next game they played. Sometimes you’re like, ‘Okay, 2:30 am, he’s ready to go to sleep.’ nope “We’re going to look at last week’s Virginia-Virginia Tech together.” It’s, I’d like to say, for the most part – there were probably a few times where we were like, ‘Okay, I’m sure we could get some rest here’ – but I enjoyed it in a weird way.”
Others shared similar versions of the same story. Mike Brey, now the captain of Notre Dame, recalled handing over the morning paper already delivered as he left Krzyzewski’s house. Chris Collins, who went to Northwestern in 2013, recalled the exhaustion of finishing a film session in the wee hours before checking into the office at 9am. With a program like Duke’s, there’s no time to rest on our laurels.
But that doesn’t mean everything is dead serious. The former assistants found that most meetings could still be fun. While there was obviously work to be done, staff could eat pizza, relax, and talk about basketball and life. The CBS article even included a detail of how Krzyzewski sometimes watched in the late 1980s Late night with David Letterman while you eat an ice cream to take a break from the grind.
While it may seem unthinkable, history ensured that these pauses were not synonymous with slacking off.
“We always kept an eye on our next opponent and then watched a game or two of theirs,” explained Jay Bilas. “We watched everything until the bitter end, even if you won at 30.”
Exercise schedules are just as detailed at Duke
However, Coach K’s endeavors don’t end with film studies. Once he’s identified a few areas of focus, it’s time to take things to the practice field. Unsurprisingly, he’s incredibly meticulous there too.
As Norlander explained, Krzyzewski conducts each training session according to a prepared plan. However, that doesn’t mean he has a badly copied PDF or some loose ideas in his head. The Living Legend uses an 8×11 sheet of paper and notes the time allotted for each exercise and the description of what needs to happen. Everything is handwritten, including a brief scouting report, and Coach K does not delegate. Assistants receive ready-made photocopies showing who is writing the script.
And thanks to the combined lessons he’s learned from his parents and his time at West Point, everything has to be done at the highest level.
“It’s in his distinctive handwriting, which has never been typed, that comes from his military background and learning a daily routine,” said former assistant Steve Wojciechowski. “All those years and he made it to the Olympics too. I don’t think the casual observer realizes that this can be that tedious, and it’s not a computer erase-erase-erase thing. If you screw up a handwritten exercise plan, Coach isn’t the type to cross it out and write it down [in] a different colored ink. It’s, ‘Man, I have to start over.’”
Coach K has to use all his experience against UNC
No matter which variant you prefer, there are many clichés that explain how the preparation directly sets the course for success. Coach K and Duke fans will be hoping that comes true when the Blue Devils hit the hardwood in the Final Four.
As almost everyone in the sports world knows, Duke meets North Carolina on Saturday, April 2nd. This game could possibly be the greatest moment of Krzyzewski’s legendary career. Aside from the rivalry — whoever wins will never make the opposing school forget it — both a trip to the championship game and Coach K’s career are at stake. There are no second chances.
While Duke needs to make some tactical adjustments, primarily to keep Armando Bacot off the glass, Krzyzewski also has a lot of work to do on a less tangible level. This is not a game that requires extra motivation or a fiery speech. Instead, it’s about keeping things in perspective and not letting the occasion overwhelm you.
The Blue Devils have matured during the NCAA tournament, but their roster is still quite young. Think back to Coach K’s last home game when the Tar Heels charged back to stun Cameron Indoor Stadium. Tonight, Duke looked inexperienced and like they were carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. The pressure will be even higher in New Orleans, so it’s important that Coach K gets his team in the right frame of mind.
It is not yet clear whether he will succeed. Maybe there’s another tactical fold, like dropping into a zone. One thing is for sure, though: Krzyzewski and his Duke Blue Devils won’t be ill-prepared for the biggest moment of their season.
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